XKCD Textbook/Workbook

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XKCD Textbook/Workbook

Postby WriteBrainedJR » Thu Jun 12, 2014 11:54 am UTC

I hated math in school. Absolutely detested it. Zoned out during class, had no patience for my homework, and couldn't stand most of my teachers in the subject.

Recently, I realized that if "XKCD: What If?" had existed when I was a kid*, I probably would have been at least somewhat more enthusiastic about math. I was never curious about numbers on a page, but I've always been curious about the world around me. "What If?" links the two in a genuine and interesting way. That's the purpose of word problems in general, but the word problems in existing textbooks were (and still seem to be) transparently artificial.

My thought** was that Randall should take the existing "What If?"s, as well as some of the other workable questions he has sent, sort them by difficulty level and mathematical concepts used, and make some sort of school textbook out of them. I'm not sure if there's enough to make a whole curriculum, or if it would be supplementary material that could be used for review, or extra credit, or to generate interest.

Would it be worth the time, financially speaking? I'm an educator, and a writer, but blissfully unaware of the state of the market in supplementary educational materials.

Further, is Randall the kind of guy who might make a decision like this for non-financial reasons? Say, to increase the number of kids who are interested in math (or even decrease the number who are openly hostile to it)?

*Note: Randall would have to be pretty darn old for this to have been the case. This thread is not meant to express regret about the unreality of an impossible past.

**Disclaimer: I doubt I'm the first person to have this thought, but a search using the terms "XKCD textbook" yielded 91 pages of results on the forum, and I absolutely lack the patience to comb through every single one of them. "XKCD math textbook" narrowed the results to 14 pages, and perusing the first two didn't show anything on this topic going back to 2011, meaning that there still could be discussion of a textbook based on the regular strips, but if the topic is three years old, and merely related rather than the same, a new topic is just as reasonable a choice as a thread necro.

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Re: XKCD Textbook/Workbook

Postby Jorpho » Fri Jul 04, 2014 4:05 am UTC

Have you read the stuff over here about "pseudocontext" ? There's probably better material out there somewhere, but I wouldn't know where to find it. There is that one bit by Feynman, at least.
Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That's only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity! There's no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn't understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!

I would be dubious about how useful What If would be in teaching math. It seems to me that relatively few numbers actually turn up in the end, which is part of the charm: it's so easy to come up with a calculation that produces a number that is just beyond the human ability to properly conceptualize, and putting them into context is just a slog.

Anyway, if I'm not mistaken, all XKCD material is Creative Commons licensed and anyone is free to use it as they see fit, with proper attribution and so on.

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Re: XKCD Textbook/Workbook

Postby schapel » Fri Jul 04, 2014 7:45 pm UTC

It seems to me that the thing that makes the math in the What Ifs is that it is mathematics applied to the real world, where the application is generally physics and sometimes chemistry or biology. I remember being turned on to physics by the book The Flying Circus of Physics, although that book has very little math in it. Perhaps a book that uses math to solve real-world science and engineering situations is what you're looking for. I think it wouldn't be too hard to write a book that introduces just enough algebra-level physics and chemistry to allow readers to do back-of-the-envelope calculations to solve real-world problems.

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